With the roll of wooden dice the luck could turn, with the flick of a card fortunes could fall, with the smallest of things could a kingdom tumble. Of all people, Jannus no Tsuyoshi knew that fate was not lightly tempted; it was fickle as the shifting seas by the edge of the town of his birth. Being a thief, there were certain risks someone of his occupation would not normally take. Of those who would take them, one of his race was even less likely to do so, for youko were both highly visible and occasionally persecuted throughout the loose alliance of provinces.
Tsuyoshi thrived on the risks. Though he regarded luck with a wary respect for its ability to turn in the hand as a double-bladed knife might, some things were worth the risk of failure for the chance to reap the potential rewards.
Running scared, though, was enough to make anyone think twice.
At the rear of the densely-packed, smoke-wreathed tavern in one of the less pleasant portions of town Tsuyoshi surveyed the crowd with a businesslike eye. From his relatively secluded alcove he had a clear view of the room, and access to two different escape routes should that become necessary. He wanted to screen potential clients without making it painfully obvious that he was youko.
Here in Coriandar there were not many of his race, which made Jannus no Tsuyoshi stand out more than he would like. He had taken an immense risk in Ankhenehara, a city in the neighboring province; he had pulled a complex job with tremendous potential reward and while he'd made away with the treasure, the theft had been discovered. Twice he had eluded traps during his escape from the province, but now he was stopped short in Coriandar, cash-poor and fast running out of options.
Tsuyoshi would have to risk his hide again, and take on some sort of job to leave Coriandar the way he preferred -- free, and not in chains. Only that morning while Tsuyoshi had circulated in the muddy streets, he'd caught sight of the post-notice. His pursuers had wasted no time; they wanted the Mai'yan gems back so badly they must have cut a deal with Coriandar's provincial government. That post-notice making the rounds was an order of extradition.
The order had surprised him. His pursuers must have paid quite a chunk of money to get that pushed through at all, let alone so quickly.
Coldly, he had calculated his chances if he bolted right that moment, on foot with what little provisions he had left. Even if he left his loot behind, Tsuyoshi had admitted to himself regretfully, he would not make it to the border. Now he had come to this tavern, the Broken Ring, in an unsavory district to ply the thieving trade -- he needed money, and he needed it yesterday. Coriandar was too small to fence even one of his acquired gems without getting caught.
Hood up, Tsuyoshi observed the patrons milling about, doing business and mixing that with a good deal of drinking. The business in this place was that of thievery, and unlike most provinces one could contract a thief right in public. That didn't mean they preferred to do it openly, however; thieves tended to stick to places like bars for some reason.
Coriandar was an odd town in that it preferred to keep its vices mostly separate, and strictly regulated; it was a keystone city of one of the few provinces that had actual guilds for thieves, assassins, whores, and other professions looked down upon by the general population. Of course, many of those guilds were extremely difficult to locate -- the Assassin's Guild, for example, were all but impossible to find. The advantages were that the government prospered, of course, with its taxation of the guilds; another result was that relations were peculiarly civil in this province.
Living in a place where it was perfectly legal to hire a thief or assassin and employ them against one's neighbors, most people took great pains to maintain good relations; even the smugglers were generally polite.
Tsuyoshi had sized up three prospective clients already and he was getting desperate. He'd paid his dues to the Thieves' Guild, fortunately registering at that time under the false name of Austen no Braddach, and that had eaten up his reserves for anything but the trickle necessary to pay his inn-fees. A day or two longer and he wouldn't be able to afford another night, as the Golden Sickle operated on a pay-as-you-stay basis.
If he waited any longer there would be bounty hunters checking around for Austen no Braddach, the name under which Tsuyoshi had registered. It was not customary for people to get access to the Guilds' records without permission of the individual in question, but money was a pivotal weakness for many, especially thieves. Plenty of people looking to collect on that post-notice would soon put 'registered thief' and 'youko' together to try and find Tsuyoshi.
The damnable thing about being a youko was that two of the men cruising him had been certain he was in the wrong tavern, and wanted to take him to the one across the street -- the one registered with the Courtesans' Guild. It was occasionally irritating -- his status as a member of a sensually irresistible race -- when one was striking out to make a living as a famous thief...Tsuyoshi always appended 'famous' in his thoughts.
Like most of his race Tsuyoshi was tall, with a supple body and androgynous features, in his case tending towards beautiful rather than handsome. He was convinced that youko exuded some sort of chemical similar to the pheromone, because despite his modest disguise there were those still drawn to him unerringly, faces creased with desire. Tsuyoshi straightened his long, lanky body, giving the eye to a burly, bearded gentleman headed towards his niche.
Tsuyoshi's tell-tale golden eyes and the soft-furred, black ears that jutted up from his hair, beginning roughly where the ear of a human would, were both shadowed by the hood of his cloak, ears confined with a length of leather thong. It was a poor disguise, but for now the best he could do. Being in Coriandar with a post-notice circulating, he did not want to be obvious as youko, therefore neither did he want to go to great lengths to conceal it, because that would make him suspicious.
The cloak was reasonably effective at disguising the fact that he had a tail, but of course not perfect -- it didn't matter as long as he was seated.
The man approaching had been a fighter -- that was clear from his build alone -- but now he was prosperous, judging from the cut of his clothes and the subtle, well-fitted armor beneath them. The soft look to his features and the swell of a gut over his belt were clear indicators he was now well-to-do. He had been disarmed at the door, as was customary of any tavern in Coriandar, but there was a sword-scabbard at his side, and likely some hidden daggers about his person.
He had been working the fringes of the room for near to half an hour now, a tankard in his hand, and wore a displeased frown as if he'd not yet found what he was looking for. Tsuyoshi had noticed as well that he had a bodyguard in the room, a fairly good one at the bar. That one was surely registered with the Assassins' Guild rather than the Warriors' -- it was his sheer talent for seeming so nondescript, almost fading from Tsuyoshi's notice, that tipped him to the possibility.
The wealthy man's eye lit on Tsuyoshi, and Tsuyoshi contained a smile though he was shielded by the shadow of his hood. The bearded man had looked at him once or twice before, had in fact started for him once already, but had then tried his luck with a table by the window and three half-drunk, riotously celebrating pickpockets.
All of this prelude roused Tsuyoshi's curiosity. There was certainly a job to be had, and he hoped he would be the one to land it.
"You're not from around here, are you?" The burly man halted a scant distance from Tsuyoshi's table and planted himself there, tossing the question at him.
"Of course not," Tsuyoshi said cautiously. From the very cut of his cloak, that would be obvious. "Why should that matter?"
The big man took a pull from his tankard and grimaced, presumably at the taste. The youko had noticed the bitter aftertaste of the Broken Ring's ale, as well; this man's palate was more refined than the typical toughs that would saunter around the worst districts. "Because if you're in here you're registered as a thief with the Guild, but you're foreign," the man replied bluntly. "I need someone like that. No one local will touch this job."
"I'm listening," Tsuyoshi said, gesturing to the seat opposite his shadowed chair.
The man plunked his tankard down on the table and seated himself, peering into the recesses of Tsuyoshi's hood. His eyes were keen but he pulled up the chair with no sign of recognition that Tsuyoshi was youko. "I need a thief, but none of the local ones will take a contract with me."
"Oh?" Tsuyoshi said archly, raising an unseen brow. "And why should I do so?"
"You're not from Coriandar, so you're not likely to stay here long," the man replied candidly. "I'll make it worth your while."
"Give me the terms and I'll decide if it's worth my while," Tsuyoshi countered.
The man squinted at him an instant longer, then nodded very slightly. "I'm Korvhan," he introduced himself. "I'm one of the main merchant powers here in Coriandar and it's earned me a bunch of enemies, as you might imagine."
"Indeed," Tsuyoshi murmured, because it seemed expected of him.
"There's one particular rival of mine who's been doing his best to undermine my business, and I won't have it," Korvhan declared harshly, and this seemed to be true from the tight defensiveness that took over his rough bearded features. "He's stolen certain items from me, valuables I can't sell here in Coriandar, and has them squirreled away using the facade of an innocent establishment."
"Let us suppose, for the moment, that everything you have told me is true," Tsuyoshi said politely.
"Oh, it's true enough," Korvhan replied, meeting his gaze and rubbing at his beard with one hand. "A body would never catch me out looking for a thief, otherwise...I've a reputation to maintain."
It seemed he and Korvhan shared a certain problem; Coriandar was too small a place to unload truly valuable things. "Why should I accept the job? What is to be my reward?" Tsuyoshi said, keeping his voice carefully light and aloof. If he sounded too eager to accept the job, it lowered the price every time. Having a belly to feed and the incentive to keep a roof over his head taught one the worth of money's jingle.
"Name it," Korvhan invited, an interested glint in his eye.
This was a test, of sorts. If he named too low a price, Korvhan would laugh at him as an incompetent; too high, and he might shake his head and keep looking. Carefully judging the clothes, the bodyguard, and the fact that no one local would take the job, Tsuyoshi carefully named a sum.
"Done," Korvhan said without blinking an eye.
Tsuyoshi felt a measure of regret; perhaps he should have raised the price a few hundred. "One more thing," he added swiftly, thinking there was advantage to dealing with a merchant.
"Yes?" Korvhan asked amiably, swishing the ale about in his mug but leaving it otherwise untouched.
"I want out of Coriandar on the next caravan," Tsuyoshi said firmly. That would have the dual advantage of getting him out of town and extradition's way, and saving him the cost while keeping his earnings.
Korvhan stared at him a moment, then roared with laughter. "Shrewd, very shrewd!" he complimented the youko, slapping a thigh. "Not only do you get your cut, but you use me for your transport out of this place."
"Yes, and the sooner, the better," Tsuyoshi replied, allowing amusement to color his voice, "if this Deeglar would be the sort to take the theft personally."
"Done, then," Korvhan said, looking smug. "And I won't even ask you to lower your fee. As soon as you deliver the goods to me I can have you on my next caravan out of town."
"Which is?" Tsuyoshi prompted.
Korvhan leaned forward a little. "Tomorrow afternoon, so haste is to our mutual advantage. I want the goods as soon as you can get them, and the sooner you get them, the sooner I put you on a caravan. The next isn't until some time next week. Do we have a deal?"
Tsuyoshi remained silent for an interval, letting the merchant stew over it. It was, of course, in his best interests not to seem overeager; even a rich merchant would be anxious to turn him in for the amount of the award circulating on the post-notice.
"A deal," he repeated, holding his hand across the table.
"Your name?" Korvhan demanded, lifting his own but withholding it. "You are licensed here, aren't you?"
"Austen no Braddach," Tsuyoshi replied with a certain amount of arrogance. "Of course I'm licensed; I'm no amateur."
"That naming-pattern, that's youko, a youko name," Korvhan noted.
"Very observant...a youko name for a youko thief," Tsuyoshi said, declining to push back his hood and show him the proof. There were plenty of people in this tavern and any one of them might be looking for youko. "You're contracting with the best."
Other than a slight widening of the eyes, Korvhan didn't particularly seem to think this was noteworthy. He'd had dealings with youko before, then. He reached out to grasp Tsuyoshi's hand and seal the deal.
"Give me the details, then," Tsuyoshi ordered.
Korvhan grinned and extended his hand across the table. "Of course. First things first, though...we're getting rid of this piss-poor ale for a decent round of wine."
Tsuyoshi smiled briefly. "I like your style."
There was a fine mist drizzling down, settling a chill veil of moisture over Coriandar and turning the top layer of dust into a kind of slippery silt. As Tsuyoshi trudged up the street he drew his cloak more tightly about himself, hoping the mist would last or thicken into rain by nightfall. A good cloud cover made ideal conditions for a little burglary, and that kind of weather would ensure that many contracted thieves were about on business, making his own activity unremarkable.
As he passed by several small shops and eateries his eyes lingered over them, like one browsing. There was one that bore a peculiar sign, a wheel carved in relief with a fox's head in profile peering over the top, its bushy tail running along the bottom. Into this shop he turned, pausing for a moment at the window casement as if drawn by something on display.
"Tsuyoshi, you thief...what are you doing in my shop? Back on the street!" a tall, slim woman in a red floral-print dress commanded, leveling a finger at him.
Tsuyoshi darted a quick look this way and that, as if she couldn't possibly be speaking to him. The shop was empty, and for that he was profoundly relieved.
Calleigh was the owner of this shop, the Vulpine Wheel, a store in this more pleasant business quarter of town. She was a halfling, half-human and half-youko, very rare in any place let alone a backwater -- as far as youko were concerned -- town like this. She was a lovely, willowy type of woman, with slender curves and luxuriant, pale-gold hair that spilled down her back and reached nearly to her ankles; two flaxen braids of it coiled around her head, nearly disguising the tapered, pointed tips of her delicately furred ears. The only immediate, obvious clues to her youko heritage were her rich golden eyes, so deep as to be nearly brown, but with that distinct tawny glint.
She had been quite intent upon Tsuyoshi until she discovered that his preference lay with his own sex, if not necessarily his own race. "Not many youko come through here," she'd said with a sigh, dissolving from sensual pose into a more sisterly attitude. "I am looking to marry one, some day."
"You'd have better chances in Vilxule," Tsuyoshi had told her obligingly. "Actually, in any province but this one."
"Thanks, but I've got a good life here...and I hate to move. Besides, I serve a purpose here."
That had been upon their first meeting a few days ago, when he first arrived in Coriandar.
Looking now around the cluttered Wheel, Tsuyoshi could understand that statement somewhat. To most, the shop was a simple place filled with trinkets, ornamental things, esoteric bits of candles and fragrances from distant provinces, as well as odds and ends of herbal remedies and other things. To a youko eye, however, the Wheel was a comforting place. Here one traveling through could find the things necessary for certain youko spells, bits and pieces of a heritage scattered across the provinces, or consult with Calleigh herself -- a healer in her own right, though not openly advertised as such.
Calleigh's shop was a safe place for any youko passing through, and Tsuyoshi himself had found this to be something he desperately needed.
"You couldn't possibly be speaking to me, miss," Tsuyoshi said mildly, pushing back his hood to reveal his glossy black head and the dark-furred ears tied closely against his hair. "My name is Braddach."
"So you're a liar as well as a thief, then," Calleigh said calmly, putting her hands on her waist and shaking her head sadly. "What are you doing here? Honest folk could get the notion that a respectable businesswoman like myself might be contracting for some mischief, and I can't have that. Are you here for your items?"
"No, I need you to keep those a little longer...until tomorrow," Tsuyoshi told her. "Don't worry, I'll be back for them soon and then I'll be out of your garden."
"Then what brings you to grace my doorstep this afternoon?" Calleigh inquired sweetly.
"I've taken on a job," Tsuyoshi said seriously, gliding further into the shop where he couldn't be seen from the window and making sure of it by rounding a tall bookshelf that nearly reached the ceiling. "Ten little gods willing, I'll be out of town by tomorrow evening, and no longer plaguing you with my annoying presence."
A hint of a smile played over Calleigh's lips. "Oh, you're not so bad, personally," she told him. "It's your occupation I can't countenance. Why do most of the youko who come through here tend towards the trade of thievery, I wonder?"
"Because Coriandar is one of the best places for it," Tsuyoshi drawled, according her a slight bow. "And it would be for me as well, if it weren't for that extradition notice making the rounds."
"You'll be out of here tomorrow, then?" Calleigh prompted, glancing over her shoulder towards her store-room.
"Yes, I'll relieve you of the imposition then," Tsuyoshi assured her. "And my thanks for taking the burden for me; I couldn't very well keep it on my person."
"Just be sure to send that cousin of yours my way," Calleigh ordered, flicking a long, ropy strand of pale hair over her shoulder. "I hope he's as partial to half-youko as you say. You don't get something for nothing, you know." She gave him an arch look.
"Of course I will," Tsuyoshi exclaimed, putting on an injured expression. He grew serious after a moment, untying the leather thong that drew tight beneath his chin. The thong, doubled and tripled to circle his head, kept his ears tied flat to his head but it was rather painful. A grunt of relief escaped him, and he began to rub his sore ears as they unflattened. "I need to ask you some things."
"What kind of things?" Calleigh asked suspiciously, emerging from behind the counter after rummaging beneath it. She had taken up a flask from behind the counter and a pair of antique wooden cups, friendship cups with frolicking kits carved into the sides. Most of the kits appeared normal, Tsuyoshi noted as he turned the cup in his hands, but one of them had multiple tails. She poured for both of them, a dark fruity wine from her own private cache.
"Just general knowledge," Tsuyoshi replied in a soothing tone. "I wanted to ask about Deeglar, preferably without asking around the street. If Korvhan was telling the truth, then doing that much could get me killed."
Calleigh's tawny-dark eyes widened. "Three days in town and you're messing with the two biggest smugglers in Coriandar?"
"I figured it was that bad," Tsuyoshi mused. "He was, after all, dressed very finely. He said he was a merchant."
"Oh, no. If it's got anything to do with the black market, it's dealing with Deeglar or Korvhan on some level or another," Calleigh told him, tossing her hair back again and settling herself against the counter. "It's unwise to get in the middle of any of their disputes, but if you're leaving town anyhow..." She shrugged.
"That was Korvhan's reasoning in hiring me," Tsuyoshi said, pleased that that part, at least, checked out. "He said none of the local thieves would contract with him."
"I'm not surprised," Calleigh said with a sniff. "It's positively brutal, the way either of them will cheerfully hire thugs to retaliate against some poor thief, who was only trying to make his contract. It makes all of the thieves very edgy."
"I can imagine," Tsuyoshi said dryly. There was the drawback to legalized criminal functions; one could hire someone to do virtually anything. If one dabbled in crime at all, it was a nervous lifestyle, a balance of hiring bodyguards to safeguard against enemies whilst dispatching assassins to take them out.
"If it got too out of hand, the city police might be forced to step in," Calleigh added, "but both sides are bribing them. At this point it would take an open brawl in the streets to get them to act."
"Well, I hope to be long gone before the war between the two goes any further," Tsuyoshi asserted, taking a swallow of wine. It was lighter to the palate than it looked, with a satisfying berry undertone, yet faintly spicy. "Good wine."
"Thank you," Calleigh said with a crooked smile.
"How many youko live in Coriandar, would you say?"
Calleigh replied at once, "Four, and I know them all. I'm the only half that lives here. Some foreign youko pass through, but it's a trickle throughout the seasons compared to the humans that move through. A lot of humans come, they pass through, trading and politicking and hiring members of one guild or another, but you know this province has no Youko Provost, and so youko don't feel protected here."
"Occupations for the four?"
"One is a courtesan, another deals with livestock breeding, trading, and healing," Calleigh told him. "Another is an assassin, reputedly quite good but difficult to find -- hardly see him, he keeps to himself. The last is a business-owner like myself. He owns the pleasure-house that the first one works in."
"All male, I assume," Tsuyoshi said, functioning on the common knowledge that youko females were very scarce still, perhaps one for every twenty males or less.
"Of course," Calleigh replied. She smiled a little wistfully. "You would think with so many males I'd have no trouble finding one willing to pair with me, but it's really the scarcity of full-blooded females that turns most of you to...other options."
"You'll find yours, whether Bonded or no," Tsuyoshi assured her. "A beautiful half such as yourself won't remain unpaired for long." The Bond he spoke of was a mechanism by which youko found sexually compatible mates; once recognized, a youko joined with their partner in a lasting relationship that enabled the youko to reproduce even if a male was with one of the same sex. The Bond also prolonged the life of their human mate.
The youko themselves did not know why the Bond had come into existence within their race, but believed it had something to do with the scarcity of females -- youko women were all but nonexistent -- that persisted to this day.
"It's been twenty years," Calleigh told him, sipping at her wine.
Tsuyoshi laughed at her. "That's nothing, and you know it. Not when we live for centuries. You know, moving somewhere else--"
"Is not an option," Calleigh answered firmly. She rolled her wooden cup between her hands. "Like I said, I'm needed here. I feel that this is my place, and it cannot be changed."
Tsuyoshi bowed his head in silent acknowledgement. "Last line of questioning," he changed the subject. With only four permanent youko in residence here, Tsuyoshi would have to move very fast or he'd fall under scrutiny and get caught.
"Go on," Calleigh replied warily. She was free enough with the knowledge, but clearly alert for a question that was more than just general information. A woman in her position had a very careful line to tread.
"Well, apparently Deeglar has looted certain valuables from Korvhan that were supposed to go out on his next train. Naturally Korvhan wants them back, and especially doesn't want Deeglar to profit from them...which is why he's willing to pay me so much, I suppose," Tsuyoshi said with a wry smile.
"I'm not sure I should be listening to this," Calleigh hedged.
"Nonsense, it will all be public knowledge soon enough," Tsuyoshi scoffed. "Deeglar didn't keep the items; he gave them to an intermediary."
"Sounds familiar," Calleigh said with a pointed look over her shoulder. She was indicating her own store-room, where Tsuyoshi had prevailed upon her to keep something in her very sturdy safe.
"Never mind that. What I really need to know is what kind of place the Laughing Sylph is," Tsuyoshi said. "All I know is that it's an inn; it sounds like a courtesan's tavern."
"It's not," Calleigh said with a frown. "It's a place where registered fighters and assassins tend to stay."
"Ah," Tsuyoshi said, raising his brows. "That would be why an innkeeper is an intermediary. He's got an armed force staying in his inn a single shout away."
"I imagine a thief would have to be very good to infiltrate that kind of place, and penetrate the innkeeper's formidable safe," Calleigh said wickedly.
"I told Korvhan he hired the best, even if I didn't tell him my real name," Tsuyoshi replied, affecting a modest demeanor.
Calleigh shook her head at him, extending the bottle of wine in a silent offer that he accepted, raising his cup. He had several hours yet before he would have to worry about needing a clear head. "Tell me something, Tsuyoshi," Calleigh said curiously. "Why on earth did you take up with a smuggler for this job?"
"Because he can get me out of town on the next caravan," Tsuyoshi replied. "That's invaluable to me; I almost would have done it for free just to get out of town. A smuggler's train has the added attraction of being suspicious of anyone who wants to inspect them, to the point of being lethal to the would-be inspectors."
"You're a bad person, do you know that?"
"That's admiration in your voice, isn't it?" Tsuyoshi returned smugly.
Calleigh turned to him, pale-gold hair sliding over her shoulder with the movement. She tossed it back impatiently again, revealing one delicately-pointed ear. "Tsuyoshi..." Her tone was one of misgiving.
Tsuyoshi sighed, tugging at the collar of his tunic. "Yes?" he prompted, in the martyred tone of one who would listen but not necessarily heed.
"I don't like it," Calleigh told him firmly. She took the friendship cup from his lax grip. "I...I have a bad feeling about it."
Tsuyoshi arched a dark brow at her. "Do I have any other choice, sweet? Are you not telling me something? Would you loan me the money to get out of this town?"
Calleigh's pretty face clouded. "You know I can't do that," she said reproachfully. "I have a business to run, and you don't have any collateral...not any you'd leave behind, at any rate."
"Then let's let matters lie," Tsuyoshi told her, ending that line of conversation.
Rather than knifing him further, luck had turned in his favor that evening, for the weather did indeed thicken. A heavy cloud cover settled over Coriandar that made a dark, moonless night even darker. After bidding goodbye to Calleigh, Tsuyoshi had gone back to the Golden Sickle for a meal and to wait for a decent interval after nightfall.
After that much and an indecent interval to boot, to be sure he'd given all of the other petty contracting thieves a headstart on the night, Tsuyoshi pulled his hood up, rose from his table and paid for his meal, and went on his way. The civilized thing about the Golden Sickle was that no one inquired into another's business; everyone in Coriandar, in fact, cultivated a distinct lack of curiosity.
He had taken a careful stroll about the town much earlier that day, and found the location of the Laughing Sylph. Tsuyoshi had been impressed at once with the professional appearances of the men leaving and entering; they were definitely registered warriors or men in otherwise armed occupations: mercenaries and bounty hunters, assassins, and the like. It was a very defensible move for a rich innkeeper, establishing his locale as a place for fighters. In that manner, he had a force of trained professionals on hand; all he had to do was call out an order and name a price, and his will would be done.
That was enough to make any thief nervous and think twice. Indeed, Tsuyoshi might have thought twice before accepting the job if Korvhan had given him that particular detail beforehand.
"These are the types of jobs that make up the foundation stones of a reputation," Tsuyoshi muttered to himself, sizing up the night-time activity. "The most dangerous ones that you pull off without a hitch."
In the moonless hours of the late night, the street was well clear of all other traffic that might otherwise clutter another town. In Coriandar, people preferred to stay in at night, even the drunks who would usually stagger home after-hours. Here they had the option of renting cots in their tavern of choice, rather than risk a slit throat on the way out.
He saw the furtive movement of footpads, lying wait in alleyways for the off chance of likely prey to happen along. Tsuyoshi steered clear of these obvious traps. There were burglars about, on levels of the city varying from ground to roof, and the better ones, of course, were the ones he could not see.
Relying on his dark cloak to provide most of his necessary cover, Tsuyoshi made his way stealthily to the Laughing Sylph. Even at this late hour, lights burned at the front of the establishment for those who might come to stay.
It began to rain.
Tsuyoshi realized, dismally, that somewhere one of the ten little gods must be laughing at him. Normally the rain would be perfect circumstances for cover of thievery, increasing the concealment of night, but this was ill-timed. He was going to have to scale the roof, had in fact already made preparations for doing so, but a slick one would be exceptionally difficult.
Nevertheless he unslung his two grappling lines, circling the Laughing Sylph to approach the likeliest point of entry, a side alley. The windows on the face of that side of the building were mostly dim. The rain was coming down, wetting the rim of his waterproof cloak and sliding under his hood, trickling down the neckline of the cloak. Tsuyoshi cursed softly under his breath. It wasn't as if he had a great window of opportunity here, it was tonight or not at all.
He secured both grappling lines, testing them gingerly. This period of the rainfall was the most dangerous, just after it had begun to rain; the tiles on the roof would not be slick yet and so the hooks would lodge, but if it rained harder they could come sliding loose.
Tsuyoshi began to climb the side of the building, beginning to feel quite sorry for himself indeed. The rain was making its way into his cloak and wetting his ears; it ran in rivulets down his hair and into his mouth and eyes. He laid his body flat to the side of the building and began to climb.
After ten feet he slipped, and one foot found purchase on a windowsill. Tsuyoshi winced. Almost, he thought; too close...the heavy wooden shutters that shielded the room from the rain and weather were right beside his toe. The slightest creak and he could be discovered, and then what kind of a thief would he be?
Tsuyoshi gritted his teeth, tested both grappling lines, and climbed higher.
This time, after three feet he slipped again. One foot brushed against the heavy shutters below, rattling them with a noise that made his blood chill faster than the rain soaking him. Tsuyoshi went still, swaying slightly as he hung from the ropes. As long as he made no further movement or disturbance, any sound he might have made could quite naturally have been the weather...
Before he could resume his climb again, a voice spoke out, startlingly near.
"What are you doing?" It was a masculine voice, coming from the room below. He didn't sound particularly menacing; in fact, he sounded...amused.
Pricked, Tsuyoshi replied flippantly, "Scaling the roof!"
"No you're not. You're scaling the side of this inn. And you're not doing it very well; you've slipped twice already."
Tsuyoshi really had no dignified reply for that, so he remained silent. Had the man been watching him all this time? Was he that incompetent?
"Well?" the unseen voice prompted.
"I'll be scaling the roof in a moment," Tsuyoshi informed him, feeling quite surly about the whole business. How dared a warrior question a thief? Who was the professional here?
He felt for his second grappling line and realized, with dismay, that it was beginning to give out. Its purchase on the roof above was none too secure.
"Having difficulties?" The man sounded even more amused.
Tsuyoshi replied desperately, "I've never scaled this kind of roof before. It's unusually uncooperative." At least the man seemed hugely entertained by Tsuyoshi's dilemma, which was a good sign he wasn't going to call out for reinforcements. Not right away.
The line snapped, and a second later its hook came clattering over the side.
Tsuyoshi plunged into the side of the inn. He crashed against the heavy wooden window shutters, which buckled and then dumped him with a groan into the room they shielded. Tsuyoshi fell with ungraceful thumps and exclamations to the floor.
"What the--!" His amused observer had leapt back as he fell, but not quite fast enough.
Tsuyoshi found himself lying on a pair of powerfully muscled legs. "Why, thank you," he said demurely, pushing himself up with a hand on each of the man's thighs. "You broke my fall quite well." He took his first look at the unseen heckler.
He was a young man, perhaps mid-twenties, and from his tall, well-muscled build and the broadsword hanging in the corner beside a heap of saddle-packs, he was some form of swordsman or another. He was really quite attractive for a human, with handsome features, a straight nose, thin but finely shaped lips, and very compelling clear blue eyes, pale and striated like a wolf's. His hair was a burnished sort of gold that fell past his shoulders and was gathered back, from the way it fell.
"Who are you, what are you, and why are you in my room?" the swordsman demanded, sitting up.
That brought them virtually nose to nose, though the bigger swordsman loomed over him. Tsuyoshi realized that his hood had slipped down, revealing his tied ears, distinctive golden eyes, and his angular, androgynous face.
"Haven't you ever seen a youko before?" Tsuyoshi demanded in turn, thoroughly annoyed by his own seeming incompetence. It was dark, that was all, and wet and slippery, and...and the blond man really did have handsome blue eyes. Tsuyoshi put on a steely expression, irritated by that wayward thought in the middle of a business expedition.
"No," the man replied, eyes fixed on his face, then trailing down his body. "I suppose I have now?"
Tsuyoshi looked at him quizzically, feeling a prickle of interest that he tried to damp down at once. He could see what this man saw, as if he were looking through his eyes -- a bedraggled, rain-soaked creature of nonetheless luminous beauty with wide, fine golden eyes. The admiring adjective was not his own, and Tsuyoshi broke their gaze. He reached up to twitch his hood forward and the man caught his wrist.
"You're amazing," the blond man said huskily, and a puzzled expression crossed his face.
Someone banged on the door.
Tsuyoshi jumped in reflexive fright, trying to scramble up and away and, presumably, to plunge out of the window. He'd forgotten about the man's grip on his wrist, and it tightened. He was going nowhere.
"What the devil's going on in there?" demanded a deep, irritated voice.
"Nothing to worry about," the blond replied, raising his own voice to be heard. "My current lover is a little drunk, that's all!"
"Drunk!" Tsuyoshi hissed, flushing furiously. Lover, he added mentally, not exactly put out but a little off-guard. He hadn't expected the man to...well, to help him out, with nothing apparent to gain.
The man's fingers flexed on his wrist, a warning.
"Well, that's all right then," replied the gruff voice, and then by the tramp of booted feet, moved along.
The blond swordsman turned back to him, a quizzical sort of smile on his handsome face. "You're a thief," he said, not question but statement, and swept along without giving Tsuyoshi chance to confirm or deny. "Youko or whatever you call yourself, give me a good reason for why I shouldn't raise the alarum right now." His big hand was deceptively loose around Tsuyoshi's wrist now.
"And who are you?" Tsuyoshi demanded in return, keeping his tone low and reasonable though the ire lurked in his golden eyes. He wasn't accustomed to being threatened.
"Ahrin Morgan, a traveling swordsman for hire," the broad-shouldered man replied, getting to his feet and drawing Tsuyoshi with him, sketching a sort of half-bow. His tail of fine blond hair trailed forward over one shoulder.
Tsuyoshi looked at him. "You mean you're a mercenary."
Ahrin put on a pained expression. "Please, I prefer the other term. Mercenary has a certain disreputable ring to it."
"You're trying to blackmail me, aren't you?" Tsuyoshi inquired blandly.
"Your word, not mine." Yet Ahrin's eyes twinkled with an irrepressible glint, and his hand lingered yet on Tsuyoshi's wrist.
Tsuyoshi pulled himself free, rubbing at his wrist, glancing up at Ahrin from beneath the fringe of dark lashes. "How's this, then?" he murmured, thinking quickly. "The keeper of the Laughing Sylph is a crook, and I've been contracted to recover something for my employer."
"I'm listening," Ahrin told him, crossing broad arms, blue eyes intent.
That made Tsuyoshi uncomfortable, though he couldn't get a handle on the reason for it. He had been admired by many men but this, he sensed, was more than simple admiration. He had returned mere admiration in some cases, but this... "I appreciate your courtesy in not revealing me when you had the chance, just now," he continued, forcing an ease he did not feel, gesturing with one hand to the door. "As a professional courtesy on my part, I would be willing to, say, cut you in for a five-percent commission of my contract fee?"
He shook back his wet hair with a barely-perceptible smile of satisfaction; that ought to pull the handsome blond's teeth. Despite his words, this Ahrin didn't seem the type for extortion -- not after helping him as he had.
If Tsuyoshi had more time he would have considered offering the man something else, with genuine intent behind his words. But he was running out of time and this contract came first. It was the only thing that would save his hide and get him out of this city.
The man looked him over from dripping head to muddy toe, scrutinizing him in such a thorough fashion that it got Tsuyoshi blushing in a manner as he hadn't done since he was a stripling kit.
"All right," Ahrin Morgan said with deceptive ease, and as Tsuyoshi's wits reeled, "but twenty percent, not five."
"That's insane!" Tsuyoshi snapped, combing through his hair with a panicked hand.
The blond's smile had a sudden edge to it. "The level of the commission, or the fact that I accepted your offer, in light of my trusting and generous cover of your unprofessional slip?"
Tsuyoshi ground his teeth together, mutely glaring into Ahrin's eyes. This human male was entirely too smart to be tolerated; that was a level of insight worthy of a youko, or an empath. "This is absurd," he announced, turning on his heel for the open window, brought to a halt when faced by open downpour.
"By all means, if you want to make a spectacularly crashing entrance into the atrium," Ahrin's deep voice said behind him, and then hands closed over his shoulders.
Tsuyoshi went still as a wood-deer scenting a stalking predator.
"At this point, you're safer in here than you are scaling the inn." The note of amusement returned.
"Who said I needed your help?" Tsuyoshi asked fiercely, twisting in Ahrin's grip to face him, but the larger man's hands settled on his shoulders once more. He stared up into those blue eyes, challenging him. Yet he did not, or could not, step away. "I simply could not countenance more than ten percent. You'd beggar me."
Again that searing blue appraisal came his way. "You hardly look like you're suffering to me."
Time for a flirt of honesty. "Appearances can be deceiving," Tsuyoshi told him, reaching up, hand pausing mid-air between them as if he would touch Ahrin's face. Instead he began to scratch one uncomfortably-tied ear. "I'm down to my last copper, you see, and I can't even afford lodgings tomorrow if this doesn't go smoothly tonight."
A frown marred Ahrin's brow. "Why do you do that, if it hurts?" he asked.
Tsuyoshi's ears twitched in annoyance; if untied, they would have lain flat. How did he know it hurt? "How many youko do you think are in Coriandar?" he said acidly.
"Well, you're the first I've seen," Ahrin said, and his frown deepened. "I've only heard tell of youko, I've never even seen illustrations."
"Exactly right, and thus the disguise," Tsuyoshi said, trying to shrug Ahrin's hands from his shoulders. The touch was beginning to feel intimate and if Ahrin didn't slant his mouth down for a kiss soon while holding him like this, he might... Tsuyoshi flicked his ears again and deliberately switched the gait of his thoughts. "Ten percent, take it or leave it."
"Fifteen, and I won't call for the guards," Ahrin told him with a grim note of finality.
Tsuyoshi narrowed his eyes. His senses were muddled, and whether it was from the rain or from his precipitous entry into the swordsman's room, he couldn't feel out the truth from his words. Ahrin certainly sounded as if he meant it now, yet from his flashes of humor and that unexpected kindness in staving off the suspicious neighbor Tsuyoshi had received the impression...
Never mind his wishful thinking; he couldn't afford to be wrong. "Fifteen percent," he agreed, expression softening to a quizzical sort of look. "I'll bring you your cut tomorrow."
"Oh, no you don't," Ahrin declared. He turned and picked up the broadsword leaning against the wall.
Tsuyoshi found himself saying somewhat stridently, "What are you doing?" In the interests of silence, of a slick job executed quick and flawlessly, he had left all heavier weapons at home and had only a few slender knives here and there. Staying out of the hands of brigands had been his main aim, and look, he had already failed.
Ahrin turned, lifting the broadsword and settling the wide leather strap into place over his shoulder. It was an immense weapon with a two-handed grip, and it looked very impressive - one reason for Tsuyoshi's justifiable apprehension. "I'm coming with you."
Tsuyoshi felt he'd missed the cargo train for a moment. "You're what?"
"I'm coming with you," Ahrin repeated crisply, then elaborated, "to protect my investment." He brushed his blond tail of hair back over his shoulder and gave Tsuyoshi a penetrating look.
Tsuyoshi's mouth was open. He snapped it shut. He lowered his head, a flush warming his pale features. Clearly it was time to return to the den and relearn lessons at his father's knee since he was a hundred years too early to begin establishing a reputation. "You don't trust me?" he said, putting on an artfully winsome look, moving with a gliding tread toward the door.
"I don't particularly trust anyone, so it's nothing personal." Ahrin gave him a quick grin, not fooled for a moment. "Besides, if someone spots you and thinks you're my lover, no one will give you trouble. You can move through the halls here freely."
There was something unnatural, he thought, about moving unrestricted through the place one was attempting to rob.
"No one dares to give a youko trouble," Tsuyoshi declared, drawing himself up. He was tall - albeit willowy - but Ahrin was even taller. It was a pleasant change to have to look up, he noted, then dismissed the thought as idle.
His words were bold, he thought, but where was he now if not in trouble? Youko or not, if he was caught they would extradite him. Youko were a protected species since the Massacre, but how far did those protections go?
"Accidents happen," Ahrin said dryly, reaching back to adjust the huge hilt of his sword. "I find this cuts through a lot of misconceptions, and helps prevent some of those accidents."
Tsuyoshi undulated up to him until they were nose to nose. "So in a way, I'm hiring you," he purred.
Ahrin's face took on a slightly unfocused look he was very familiar with, the one that indicated the man was contemplating Tsuyoshi's assets rather than the conversation. It was a "sex" sort of look that a man could get regardless of the situation. That was reassuring, as if Tsuyoshi needed the confirmation. Ahrin was the type to be interested in him.
Ahrin swallowed. "I suppose you could look at it that way," he agreed.
Tsuyoshi reached for the doorknob. "I'll be sure to make very good use of your services."
That hand was on his wrist again, stopping progress. Tsuyoshi turned with a hint of a snarl; the night was ticking along and he still had much to accomplish. Ahrin met his fierce look with composure, then turned to rummage through some packs. He secreted a few items, keeping his body turned from Tsuyoshi as he did so.
Dark brows raising, Tsuyoshi waited with a faint smile. This should be most interesting.
"Now let's go," Ahrin told him with a nod, the handsome openness of his face transforming into a hard professional look.
"Will you hurry? I think I hear someone coming."
Tsuyoshi kept his teeth firmly ground together, wanting more than anything to hiss "if someone is coming, you shouldn't be whispering," but that would only add more noise they didn't need. He concentrated instead on picking the lock. The innkeeper of this establishment was extremely prudent: the lock to his office had obviously been designed by a professional thief, since it was built to circumvent most methods of picking it.
He was youko, however, and as such had certain advantages.
If it had been made of metal he might have had trouble; Tsuyoshi, like most youko, did not work well with metal. Fortunately, metal locks were the easiest for a standard contract thief to pick, and thus that had been avoided in this design. It was made of resinous hardwood, its interior divided into separate chambers, each of labyrinthine complexity. This was where a lesser thief would blunder, in trying to tap out the route to unlock it and failing. Tsuyoshi kept his free hand on the wood, sounding out the 'feel' of it as he plied the lock-picks.
"How much longer is it going to take?" the voice of the unexpectedly annoying swordsman demanded, using a hushed performer's-whisper.
Tsuyoshi accidentally bit the corner of his tongue, but managed to keep his place in the complicated lock. "Will you be silent?" he hissed. "Just who is the contract thief, here?"
It might have been his imagination but he thought he felt the startled silence that ensued.
There. If he nudged this last part just so, the tumblers would fall into place. He did, and the resounding click was as satisfying as the taste of triumph. He stood, stowing his 'picks. "Let's go," he said, rather crossly. The only thing Ahrin was doing for him, he was sure, was making him significantly more conspicuous.
The office was quiet and dark and he quashed the urge to conjure up a palm-fire to guide their way; it was unnecessarily showy. Besides, the interior of the office was dry and he would risk the possibility of spreading fire farther than he intended. Instead he removed the nub of candle from a waterproofed pouch sewed into the lining of his cloak and lit it. Ahrin looked closely at the flame over his shoulder, but said nothing. One thing in the man's favor -- he moved soundlessly on his feet.
The outer antechamber was a sort of reception area, likely for the innkeeper's staff if he had any, or for personal use with clients such as the smuggler Deeglar. There was an inner room as well and to this Tsuyoshi drifted, locating it by the joinings. It had been quite cleverly placed to seem as if there was no door, only the planks of the wall; it was triggered open not by a handle, but by an odd, roughly oval knot in the wood.
Still silent now, Ahrin followed him into the inner office. This was a more luxurious cubby-hole, with a large comfortable chair behind a tidy desk of polished wood. The safe, a squat, ugly steel box, was not hidden away as Tsuyoshi had half-expected -- it was pushed into one corner of the room.
"This will take a little longer," Tsuyoshi warned, pulling a few slender pins from his belt, as well as a few other minute tools. He set the nub of candle on the safe. "So you'd better not joggle my elbow while I'm working."
"Wouldn't dream of it," Ahrin replied, holding a hand palm out to emphasize sincerity.
It took him near half an hour to finesse the complicated iron locks of the safe, not for the fact that it was metal but simply because he was not accustomed to cracking safes. In the end, however, the series of tumblers opened under his skilled fingers, and he pulled open the small metal door.
The safe was empty.
Tsuyoshi's hand flashed to his knife as he rose, and Ahrin's hand went to his sword-hilt, though he had no room to draw in the cramped, low-ceilinged office.
"What is it?" Ahrin demanded.
"There's nothing here," Tsuyoshi said, relieved of one suspicion by the swordsman's response. He didn't quite understand why, but somehow he knew Ahrin was not the one who'd set him up. The pieces didn't fit. "It's a trap." He drew his knife, and took another from its hiding-place so that he had one in each fist.
Ahrin's expression hardened. "Surely you don't think I..."
"No," Tsuyoshi assured him, though there had been a fleeting moment of suspicion. No, his meeting with Ahrin had been by chance, not design, and he hoped it was to his advantage. "I've been set up."
The man's eyes flicked to the door. "So we've been followed, and they're sure to be waiting for us." He bent and twisted somewhat awkwardly to allow himself to draw the heavy two-handed broadsword. "Why would someone go to the trouble of setting up a contract thief?"
"They're sure to have prepared a nasty surprise," Tsuyoshi replied, moving forward with his daggers gripped low. "I suppose now might be the time to admit I've a price on my head in Ankhenehara?"
Ahrin's eyes widened, but he made no other show of surprise. "Challenging," was all he said.
Tsuyoshi gave him a taut grin in return. "So I'm about to find out just how good you are, my traveling swordsman-for-hire."
"So you are."
Tsuyoshi switched both knives to one hand as he opened the door, then danced swiftly out of the way, tossing a knife into his free hand. It was not impossible for armed men to be awaiting them, and who knew what kind of weaponry they carried. It was dark in the antechamber, and he couldn't spare a hand to bring the candle on the way out.
To light their way instead, he drew on the heat of the flame he'd kindled with flint and pulled a finger-length of flame into existence, letting it bob freely in the air beyond his shoulder. It would light their way. His eyes darted to Ahrin Morgan.
The swordsman had taken a quick breath, and his shadow-darkened eyes met Tsuyoshi's. "I'd heard that youko possessed such powers," was all he said in a hoarse whisper.
A beat, then Ahrin motioned that he would precede him, broadsword gripped in both hands.
With a shout, Ahrin was moving before Tsuyoshi even had time to register the presence of others in the room. He hadn't even heard the group enter the anteroom -- the inner office must have soundproofing.
A crossbow bolt thunked into the ceiling as Ahrin attacked, shearing the crossbowman in half from shoulder diagonally through the torso. Tsuyoshi darted for the right side of the room, daggers whirling, wishing fiercely that he'd strapped on his sword. He felt under-armed, now, but he had counted on stealth to keep him safe for this job.
The flame flickered as his concentration was focused elsewhere, and Tsuyoshi lofted the small flame above their heads to illuminate the room while they fought. With luck, it had dazzled their opponents' dark-accustomed eyes.
Metal clanging, he diverted the wicked curved blade of his opponent, stabbed for his heart, and at the gurgling cry kicked his opponent back. This freed his blade for the next man and the first that he'd kicked over did not rise.
The quarters of the antechamber were cramped, making the fight quick and brutal...but over soon because of it.
"Noisy," Ahrin remarked, wiping his massive blade on the tunic of the one of the fallen.
"Rather ugly, as well," Tsuyoshi replied critically, averting his eyes from the sight of the two dismembered corpses Ahrin had cleaved nearly in half. That broadsword was an intimidating weapon in the hands of a good fighter. It would give Tsuyoshi strong thoughts about running, were he in the shoes of Ahrin's opponent. "Good. The more they bleed on the innkeeper's carpet, the more I get my small revenge."
"You could take it as a compliment," Ahrin told him, keeping his blade ready in both hands. "He sent five men after you, after all."
"Deeglar may be Korvhan's smuggling rival in Coriandar, but I have a strong suspicion these were contracted by Korvhan," Tsuyoshi said, nostrils flaring at the metallic odor of blood. "He hired common thugs. I'm insulted, but grateful that he seems to have underestimated me."
He called the fire down from its hovering place near the ceiling, sheathed his knives, and took the flame in his hand. Its light flickered from between his fingers, still providing illumination but shielded now.
Ahrin sucked in a breath. "Now that..." he said, tone reverent, "...is something I've not heard tell of. How do you do that? You're not an elemental."
"No, I'm not," Tsuyoshi agreed with a shrug. "As to how...I couldn't quite explain it to you; most of the things we do are more instinct than anything."
They shut the door of the innkeeper's office behind them, careful not to step in the pools of blood here and there. That was one definite drawback to having someone with a broadsword on your side; if one was trying to be inconspicuous, it was virtually impossible.
The halls of the Laughing Sylph were dark and deserted. This was immediate cause for suspicion.
"Tell me," Tsuyoshi murmured, as he paused to cast his senses along the sluggish air to see if any other men laid in wait for them, "did you happen to hear rumors of a bounty circulating?"
"If I had, you might not be worrying about it right now," Ahrin replied, and his tone was at least half serious.
"At least we don't have that to worry about," Tsuyoshi said. "Now...I think we ought to make good use of the back door, in case Korvhan decided that five weren't enough to take care of me."
The way to the back door of the Laughing Sylph ran through the kitchens, and even at this hour they were bustling with late-night activity. Though the hour was late, some few patrons lingered in the common areas that still served both food and drink. The officious kitchen super who might have seen fit to bar their way was brought to a stammering halt by Ahrin's broadsword, not exactly waved in his face but brought a good deal closer than he might like. From that viewpoint he could see the blood that hadn't quite been wiped clean.
Beyond the back door there was a broad alley-way. Tsuyoshi was cautiously relieved that nothing awaited them in the form of another surprise ambush. He clenched his fingers and snuffed out the flame.
"Let's go," Ahrin said tersely, moving ahead to take the point position once more.
It wasn't until they rounded the corner of the alleyway that they encountered trouble once more. There was no shout, no cry of warning, no flickering torches, just a crowd of men that swarmed in from both sides. Tsuyoshi's knives were out and flashing in his hands, and Ahrin surged forward with his broadsword raised.
They fought in grim silence and the muted clash of steel. It was a dark night and water still trickled on the street, although the rain had stopped. It made for slick and dangerous footing. Tsuyoshi dispatched a man with a knife-stab to the eye and took up his sword, fighting with a sword in his right hand and a knife in his left. He felt as if the odds were more even; with that broadsword of his Ahrin could decimate a legion, and seemed to be aiming for just that as he delivered wide, overhanded blows on his opponents, spraying blood and carving flesh. With his preferred weapon, the sword, Tsuyoshi was in a much more defensible position even though the odds were overwhelming.
The silence gave way to shouts and groans; Ahrin was as good with his sword as he'd implied and he sought to slice a path through their opponents' bodies. Tsuyoshi fought with a snarl on his face and noted that despite the kills that both his blade and Ahrin's claimed, their opponents didn't seem to be noticeably diminishing.
At the mouth of the alley, some of the men who lingered appeared to be calling up the street.
Reinforcements. Tsuyoshi's mouth went dry.
"Just how big was that price on your head?" Ahrin demanded, as they fought side by side in the alley. Slowly, inexorably, they were being pressed back. Tsuyoshi cast about frantically for something, anything, that he could use to his magical advantage but the ground beneath them was laid cobblestones and mortar, the men had not brought torches -- possibly so instructed -- that he would be able to use, and the night air was dank and unresponsive.
If they were pressed back further, their opponents would have them against the wall, and slaughter Ahrin by sheer force of numbers. Tsuyoshi, they would capture.
A shudder rippling along his spine, Tsuyoshi told Ahrin the sum.
Even in the darkness, the youko could see the man's eyes go flat. That was it, then. He and Ahrin had discovered that there was no commission as Tsuyoshi had claimed, and the human would turn on him for the price he could fetch. That fear screamed through him for an instant of inchoate babbling, before he realized that Ahrin was turning.
"Brace yourself against me," Ahrin roared, lifting his sword to deliver another one of those punishing overhand blows. "Fight back to back, and we can hold them!"
Dazed, Tsuyoshi wondered how many men were willing to throw themselves on their blades -- what sum had Korvhan promised? He obeyed, though, spurred by the sight of another cluster of men fanning out into the alleyway. Fear ran cold and thick in his veins, a kind he had never felt before. With a misdirecting flick of his knife, metal screeching along his opponent's sharp blade, he drove his blade into the man's guts, angling to miss the spine, and kicked his body sharply back into the closing ring of armed fighters. That forced a few men back, he noted grimly, before another tried to take him from the side.
The point of Ahrin's great sword dipped, and Tsuyoshi felt desperate, snarling as he tried to parry two opponents, feeling the sting of a knife along his ribs. Behind him, he felt Ahrin clutching at something, and he had shifted to a one-handed grip on his sword. They were being overwhelmed.
He could feel the press of Ahrin's back against his, and the long line of the scabbard crossing between them from shoulder to hip. Tsuyoshi's cloak tangled about their legs. His arms were growing numb as they came at him, one after another. Before he realized it, a hum of power built up around them, static crackling along his body, vibrating the air with its force and creating an intense, tightly-confined dome that seethed with energy -- not crude but highly focused.
"Ahrin!" Tsuyoshi cried warning, thinking that a mage must be amongst the fighters that poured down on them like rain. He had no time; it happened too quickly for him to pull up any kind of shielding. There was no counter he could call upon to defuse the magic battering at his mind and body like the sizzle of lightning.
The power ignited, and the concussive shockwave blew outward in surges of violent red and magenta. The rows of the attacking fighters were ripped apart or hit squarely by the force of it, and fell.
Stunned, part of his mind raw and flinching from the backlash, Tsuyoshi slid to his knees. It had been a long time since he'd felt the touch of human magic, and this was the first time he had been so close. It burned. It still seared through his mind.
Ahrin kicked a body or two out of his way as he picked amongst the attackers to make sure none would rise. His golden hair gleamed over his shoulder with the faint light of the stars as the clouds finally parted.
The rain was gone.
"Tsuyoshi?" Ahrin said, crouching beside him solicitously. A trace of concern, apprehension, entered his look.
In one hand, his heavy broadsword dangled. In the other, he held a slim truncated staff, small enough to have been tucked into his belt behind him. The convoluted metal disk at its head still crackled with power, the bright gems that studded it flaring and hurting his eyes.
"You're no swordsman," Tsuyoshi said vaguely, and began to topple. His mind was more than merely numbed by that blast, noted the part of him that was still capable of being clinical. "Calleigh...take me to the Vulpine Wheel."
He felt strong arms catch him as the aftereffects of that brutal power took its toll.
Honey-thick sunlight called him to waking. Tsuyoshi lingered on the edge of sleep, feeling more than seeing the red of light through his closed eyes, slowly coming to awareness. He was curled on his side on something cushioned, but unyielding. He had a headache like a top-class hangover throbbing through his temples, and his mouth tasted metallic. Altogether between the options of rolling over and trying vainly to sleep, and getting up to rid himself of the taste, crossing the line into wakefulness seemed the far less painful option of the two.
He slitted his eyes. His ears twitched.
"...get him out of town..."
There, that was Calleigh's voice. A tension he hadn't realized he possessed dissolved with that piece of information -- it meant he had made it to safety. Tsuyoshi opened his eyes fully and sat with a soft groan of anguish. He rubbed his temples. He rather thought he might want to die or at least return to sleep, if he didn't start feeling better soon.
Tsuyoshi discovered he had been lying on a pallet in Calleigh's store-room. His cloak and boots and the meager belongings on his person had been set at the foot of it. The cut on his ribs had been bandaged, and he discovered evidence of wounds he hadn't even realized he had received. Those had been treated as well. The sunlight poured in through the windows to his left, telling him it was still morning in Coriandar.
He got to his feet silently and set one soft-furred ear to the door. As a thief, it was an occupational precaution to eavesdrop, simply to make certain he knew what he was getting into. Besides, he wanted to make sure that the person she was talking to was...
"I was planning on doing that anyhow," answered a distinct, masculine voice.
Ahrin. His knees went weak with relief. He had hoped the swordsman wouldn't disappear before he could make some kind of gesture at compensation.
Before Tsuyoshi could pin down his own puzzling, excessive response to Ahrin's presence, Calleigh was speaking and he found he had to pay attention.
"Do you know why you are helping him?" the young halfling asked, her tone peculiarly intent.
"Well...no, actually," the man admitted. "I suppose he can't even pay me, if he really is down to his last copper as he claimed. I don't know why, I just -- I have to help him." There was a helpless sense of inevitability in his voice, his words.
"Of course," Calleigh replied, soothing, sounding as if it were perfectly natural. "Now, you used magic, you said. What kind of spell? Tsuyoshi is still unconscious."
Behind the door, Tsuyoshi's mouth quirked.
"A shockwave spell," Ahrin told her, sounding stricken. "I didn't realize, I mean, I've never met a youko before -- I told him to stand back to back with me because it shouldn't have included him in the spell's range..."
"It's all right," Calleigh assured him. Her footsteps whispered over the floor; after a moment Tsuyoshi heard the soft chink of bottles against wood. "It's not your fault. Youko are sensitive to that kind of energy. He should have been excluded, but the power of it swept over him even though the effects of the spell itself did not."
"I'm so thankful he's okay..."
That last was mumbled, and Tsuyoshi pressed against the door, knee thumping softly against the wood. Why, it sounded as if Ahrin genuinely cared.
"Can you make arrangements--" Calleigh broke off.
Tsuyoshi cursed, stepped away from the door and returning to his pallet. He assumed a pained expression and put his hand to his temples once more.
The door to the store-room opened, and Tsuyoshi squinted up at the tall half-breed who stood on the threshold.
"Tsuyoshi. Feeling better?" Calleigh asked solicitously, though there was a glint of understandable suspicion in her eyes. She held a wooden cup in one hand.
"Not appreciably much, no," Tsuyoshi admitted, wincing as his temples throbbed horribly. It was a small punishment for getting up to eavesdrop, he supposed.
"Drink this." Calleigh bent beside him and pressed the cup into his hands.
It was cool and a little earthy, like mud, but an aftertaste of mint chased it down. After the initial choke Tsuyoshi drained it gratefully down, recognizing the restorative draught for what it was. It was rather foul-tasting, but most importantly, it erased the metallic taste from his mouth and would work toward replenishing nutrients that the metal-inflicted wounds and magic had purged from him. He leaned, half-reclining on the pallet. He would begin to feel better soon once the draught worked its way through his veins.
A tall, broad-shouldered figure appeared in the door. Ahrin Morgan's expression was tentative, as if unsure of his welcome, but worried.
"Ahrin!" Tsuyoshi exclaimed, doing a good job -- he thought -- of seeming surprised.
Ahrin's look softened when he laid eyes on him.
Tsuyoshi's already-roiling stomach did an interesting sort of flip. "You came back," he said slowly, then winced. "I'm sorry...I haven't...I haven't got a commission for you, after all." He had a great deal of money tied up in the gems in Calleigh's safe, but none of that did him any good in a town that was too small to fence the jewels and get out with his skin intact.
"That's all right," Ahrin assured him, seeming quite certain of himself now, taking a step into the store-room.
"It is?" Tsuyoshi swallowed, and tasted the remnants of the murky potion.
Calleigh took one look at his face, then Ahrin's, then rose to her feet. "I'll be going," she announced, dispensing it as general information.
It was completely superfluous. The youko and the human had locked eyes, and would be in no danger of breaking that gaze any time soon. As Calleigh edged her way around Ahrin's tall frame, the blond human took up her place, kneeling at Tsuyoshi's side.
"I'm going to help you get out of Coriandar," Ahrin told him, reaching out, brushing a thick strand of dark hair away from Tsuyoshi's face as if he couldn't help himself.
Perhaps he couldn't, at that, Tsuyoshi mused, something thick and vital stirring up his insides, and it was not the draught he'd so-recently downed. "You would do that for me?" Tsuyoshi queried, putting his head to the side, golden eyes narrowing shrewdly as he assessed Ahrin's sincere face.
Ahrin frowned. When he spoke, it seemed as if he did so with some difficulty. "Y-yes."
The question Tsuyoshi had put to him had implications of a far deeper nature. As if sensing that, the human had struggled with his response. It was good, though, and Tsuyoshi felt it deep in his bones. Ahrin had acceded to far more than he knew...yet.
"I can't pay you," Tsuyoshi admitted frankly, hitching himself up on the pallet, assuming a more comfortable sitting position. "At least, not until we get out of this province -- perhaps not even until I reach Brassil or Vilxule."
Ahrin's solemn expression gave way to a hint of a smile. "That's all right," he said, unconcerned. Now it was a full-fledged smirk. "We can talk payment options on the way out of town."
"You ass--" Tsuyoshi began hotly, eyes flaring, intending to accuse him of assuming too much.
Ahrin's handsome face loomed close, and his firm mouth cut off the rest.
That took care of it rather well, Tsuyoshi thought briefly, happily, before devoting his full attention to Ahrin's kiss.